An Historical Introduction to Laos in 1893

Published as a supplement to “Laos in 1893", a new translation of “Le Laos Annamite”, in Sept. of 2008.

Where colonists come to haggle: a French mercant buying cardamom (a forest product) in Laos.

Living authors have few advantages over the dead, but in historical retrospect there is an inequality between the sides that we must exploit to the full. Looking over the events at a glance, it is immediately apparent that this remarkable account, Laos in 1893, could not have been written a single year earlier, nor just a few years later, given the Anglo-French Convention of ‘96 and events following fast thereafter, with Laos in open revolt against foreign rule in 1902. Lemire’s work is literally and figuratively bound to the treaty of ‘93, included as an appendix. The author writes partly as an explorer reporting his discoveries, partly as a proponent of colonization as a moral enterprise, partly as a polemic against the English but, even more stridently, against the Siamese: his mission was to establish both borders and trade routes against and excluding Thailand.

On February 17th of the same year, Lord Lamington addressed Britain’s House of Lords, complaining that France’s entitlement to what the lands extending to the left bank of the Mekong (viz., Laos) were provinces of Annam, but, “No evidence whatever existed to prove [the claim]”.1 The present volume by Lemire is precisely part of the “evidence” offered in the counter argument: France was entitled to Annam by conquest, and so became responsible for Laos as a dependency thereof.

The original outpost of French imperialism in Northern Laos: the wooden shack used by the Pavie mission.


There can be no doubt that Lemire was intensely aware of the “debates” as to these borders in the British parliament: he complains that instead of quarreling over the ejection of French troops from Thailand, the Parliament should, “…make known to Europe when it intends to return Egypt to the Egyptians”.2 This sarcastic remark brings us back to fundamental absurdity of imperial debates of the time: whatever the purpose of the quarrel, it certainly had nothing to do with the weal of the “subject peoples” (be they Egyptian or Lao), it was purely a matter of European politics projected onto the map of Asia.

That map was still little known in 1893: both sides of the debate were carried by explorers. Lamington, standing before the House of Lords, drew his authority from his own expedition of 1890; in reply, the Secretary of State for India can only confess that “not possessing the advantage of having been in those countries myself”, he has been engaged in constant study of the maps, but regrets, “I have always a difficulty in distinguishing between the various names of these Shan States…”.1 In fact, the area was so unknown to its self-styled “protectors” in London, that in June of 1893, the House of Commons was flatly told that, “The only recent information that has reached Her Majesty’s Government has been that given by the French newspapers, as there are no British Agents at or near the localities affected”.3

It is difficult to believe that much of anyone in the House of Commons could have recognized the place-names in Northern Laos mentioned when the representative for Monmouth called for, “…the British Occupation of Mongsing […] failing a satisfactory agreement to create a buffer sate between the river Nam Oo and the river Mekong…” —nevertheless, this proclamation (for the defense of places unknown) stirred up enough sentiment for the Hansard to record the assembly breaking out into cheers.4

Elephants crossing the river outside Hue, Annam.


Lamington’s orations of 1893 appear perfectly counterposed to Lemire’s argument: both men made political use of the “facts” discovered by their expeditions, and while these facts were far from unquestionable, there were very few in France or England who could question them.

The primary “fact” presumed was that Burma is British, and Annam French. Thus, secondary questions as to the Shan States, Laos and Isan, were debated in terms of how Burmese or how Annamite these areas might be, either by natural geography or by indigenous tradition. Under the latter heading, cultural and ethnic categories sometimes became significant, along with the record of prior rule, and of who paid tribute to whom. This is discussed by all sides as if there were a very ancient and hallowed system of entitlements, with a grave responsibility for the Europeans to “protect” the subject peoples at the outer limits of (putative) influence for the capital cities they had (recently) occupied by force.

Virtually none of these “facts” in contention in 1893 existed more than a decade earlier than the debate itself: these were brand-new borders that both Lemire and Lamington’s expeditions “discovered” —or rather, served to invent in European parliaments. The evidence of indigenous history, or indigenous polity, was employed selectively, and purely to prove that territory fell on the British or French side of an imaginary (and alien) divide. In short, terms such as “Annamite Laos” used in contrast to “Independent Burmese Laos” (e.g., p. 55 of the present volume where it is used to indicate Jinghong!) are not only baffling to readers today, but would have been baffling to inhabitants of the region at that time; evidently, they were not much less baffling to the parliaments of Europe.

“Annam” itself was a hated exonym. Previously used by the Chinese to refer to Vietnam, it had no local currency; it was (and still is) perceived by the Vietnamese as having denigrating connotations. The political usage of the term coined by the French simply indicates parts of Vietnam conquered by 1873, when the territory remaining independent was referred to as “Tonkin” (in contrast to Annam). The conquest of Tonkin followed in 1883, with usage of “Annamite” continuing in a double meaning: one jurisdictional (reflecting the two stages of conquest described), the other more vaguely geographical, indicating what the French regarded as a single chain of mountains stretching from the northern limits of Laos and Vietnam all the way to southern Cambodia. Neither the name nor the presumption of such a geographic unity existed beforehand; the vantage of the French was that of an ocean empire, looking inland toward its limits from the coast, and perceiving these as “the same” mountains, wherever they moored their ships. With reference to these mountains, the French then spun off the ethnological usage of Annamite, as if to be even more confusing: it can mean, “the indigenous tribal peoples of the mountain hinterland (of Vietnam and Laos)”, including groups such as the Moi photographed herein. These “highlanders” were contra-distinguished from the Vietnamese of the coasts and major cities, yet the term Annam[-ite] continued to be used to simply mean the lowland Vietnamese of the areas annexed by 1873. Thus, when the word is combined to form “Annamite Laos” (as in the original title of Lemire’s work, and throughout), it is even more abstract and artificial.

Here and there, this mess of sophistry happened to intersect with some part of the truth. After quoting some recent depositions in the French Chamber of Deputies, Lord Lamington summed up both the “strength” and the “weakness” of the case that French colonists were presenting (at precisely the same time) in calling for the occupation of a (vaguely defined) greater Annam:

They spoke of the insulting and intolerable conduct of the Siamese; said that the Siamese had snatched French territory; had despoiled and maltreated French subjects; that supported by the English they [the Siamese] had established a post in Cambodia, had a desire to take all Annam, and (which was almost ludicrous) that the Siamese posts could be heard at the gates of Huê, and were within a few days’ journey of Hannoi, the capital of Tonquin. The Siamese elephant must have been roaring rather loudly to have been heard so far, for the places referred to were several days’ march from the French frontier. […]
No evidence whatever existed to prove [the French] assertion of incontestible rights of the old Kingdom of Annam to the left bank of the Mekong generally. Grounds could no more be alleged for it than for a claim by Denmark to suzerainty over this country, or for a similar claim by England over France at the present time.1

I think this fairly accurately depicts the problem Lemire set out to solve with his expedition, or at least one of the main objections (to his envisioned empire) that this book would answer. While Lamington’s speech may ridicule the premise, the great advantage the French had was precisely in indicating the Siamese encroachment upon the disputed territory: even if their right to “Annamite Laos” relied on a weak argument, it could be re-enforced with the case for France interjecting itself as a protector against the rapacious barbarity of the Siamese.

Elephants rigging up for a journey in Northern Laos.

While the details of the geography and ethnic diversity of the area may have been beyond either parliament’s comprehension, all sides had to admit that the Bangkok Thais were invading some territory other than Thailand, enslaving some foreign people who were not Thai. The brutality of these conquests and raids (much discussed by Lemire in the pages following) was not reported by French sources only; in 1879, an official reporting to the British Foreign Office (by the name of Gould) left us a graphic account of the enslavement of ethnic Lao by ethnic Thai, “hardly surpassed in its details of miserable suffering by any story of the slavers of Africa…”.5 Even if it were a stretch of the imagination to say that Thai aggression constituted an invasion of Annam, the French construed it as such to valorize their defense of “Annamite Laos”. It was simply not politically convenient for either side to recognize the concept or category of “the Lao” in-between.

The terms employed in these negotiations (suited as they were to the short-term interests of Europeans of the time) had far-reaching consequences for the region. From May 5th to June 27th of 1947, the “Franco-Siamese Conciliation Commission” addressed the Thai claims to the whole of Lao territory, as well as Battambang province, Cambodia;6 this is to say, in effect, that the Thais tried to resume the border dispute of the 1890s at the end of World War Two. The rhetoric had been rehearsed in the Franco-Thai war of 1940-41; however, at that time, the Thai government had only to present its case to the relatively uncritical mediation of the Japanese occupation. The commission of 1947, by contrast, consisted of representatives from the U.S., Britain, France, Thailand and Peru, “to decide on the claims… which would expand the territory of Thailand all the way to the Vietnamese border… [and] the Commission rejected in its final report all of Thailand’s claims.”6 While this seems wildly incongruous with the politics of the 20th century, anyone who reads Lemire’s account will see that the Siamese had indeed sought with all their might to extend their territory to (what is now) the Lao-Vietnamese border, within living memory of 1947. Many of the same attitudes, presuming a greater Thai “empire” that had somehow been lost due to French aggression in 1893, were evident in Thai invasion of Laos in 1987-8, and in the periodic prominence of border disputes with Cambodia. The latter tend to be vaguely or indirectly premised on the notion that Thailand is still entitled to provinces along the Mekong said to be “stolen” by France in 1907, if not the whole of Cambodia. One such dispute is on the edge of armed conflict at the time of writing, with both Thai and Cambodian troops surrounding opposite sides of two temples (and the two passes through the Dongrek mountains containing them) in late 2008.


However, in 1893 the view from London and Paris was this: the indifferent mass of land that would be fatefully divided into Laos, Isan, and Shan State, could only be thought of as either annexed to the British along with Ava, or else annexed by France along with Huê. The third possibility, that Laos might be legitimately “Siamese”, only emerges as a last resort, and the notion that Laos ought to be an independent country unto itself never emerges at all.

In September of 1893, just one month before the final treaty between France and Siam was signed, Lamington changed his tactics: he deplored to Parliament that “the States of Kan and Luang Prabang” had always been “strictly Siamese”, thus there was a grave injustice in their being united with Vietnam by “an imaginary line” foisted upon them by the French.7 This new sophistry must have been improvised with an air of desperation. Just a year earlier, Lamington’s position had been that, “…the eastern frontier of Burmah rests on the Mekong; but there is a small State adjacent, the greater part of which lies on the eastern or left bank of that river”; he argued that England should extend its power beyond the Mekong, to occupy the latter small State, “which in no way could be construed as an act of aggression”.8 This earlier position of Lamington’s does not recognise any Siamese right to the territory in question and was urged as a means of avoiding a river-boundary (“which is always liable to be a fruitful source of dissension”) between British Burma and French Indochina. Instead, Lamington wanted to extend British territory even further east, up to “a chain of mountains, passable only at perhaps two points, [that would] form the line of demarcation”.8

All of this reflects the pliancy of the supposed facts, and even of the geography itself, in the hands of the British negotiators of the time.

Although the Anglo-French Convention would settle many of these differences in 1896, we should not, on that account, ignore the very real possibility of a war in resolving the overlap between Lamington’s vision of British territory east of the Mekong (see above), and Lemire’s vision of French territory west of the Mekong (see below).

Both sides wanted the Shan states: Lemire doesn’t argue that France should conquer them, but rather “not abandon” them.9 In the same passage, the author vaguely suggests that France’s right to Shan territory dates from 1884, i.e., presumably alluding to the negotiations with China that recognized French dominion over Tonkin, following the conquest of the latter in 1883.10 Starting from this weak (and almost unstated) premise, Lemire then takes a step into the surreal:

It suffices, in relying upon the past of these regions, on their annals, their political state, both ancient and recent, and on the geographic situation, to consider that they form an integral part of French Indochina.9

To speak within Lemire’s own idiom, this makes about as much sense as relying upon the ancient traditions of Egypt to prove that it is an integral part of the British orient. Somewhat easier to believe is the explanation that France simply wanted this territory in order to stymie one of history’s most hypothetical and impracticable railway routes:

[The English] covet the access routes from Burma to China through the Upper Mekong Valley. That region should remain a dependency of the French Protectorate in Indochina.11

There can be little doubt that this refers to the same fantasy, if not the very same map, that came to prominence in 1890 with the publication of Holt. S. Hallett’s findings from his expedition of 1876.12 The imperial imagination was set ablaze by the mere dotted line of a proposed railway to Yunnan via “Ssumao” (Simao), a place that was then little more than a dot on the map itself.

In what would neither be the first nor the last fad of false economy, an area of near-zero commercial interest, at that time unknown to almost any European (aside from Lamington himself)13 came to the fore of inter-empire diplomacy, and could have provided the grounds for war. The debate around the Franco-Siamese border along the Mekong was, in fact, vitiated by these overweening concerns about a train-line through the outermost limits of the Shan States’ border with Yunnan. Perhaps these extremities took on such disproportionate importance because the commercial potential of the more accessible stretch of the Mekong (e.g., Isan) was something known, and therefore finite, but these most-remote areas still had the aura of infinite potential —in part because their estimate had not yet been taken, and in part because of misconceptions about the opium trade (discussed in §5, below).


Where was this “Ssumao”? Or rather, what was it, aside from a dot on Hallett’s map, at the limits of the Shan States and “Independent Burmese Laos”? A few years later, in 1896, at least one of England’s elected representative still wanted to know. A question was posed in the House of Commons as to what had been done in “preserving our right of railway approach from our Burmese seaboard to Ssumao”, even though the town’s existence as a “treaty port” only dates only to 1895.14 Prior to that time (if not long after) it was a town of no significance, one of many scattered around Pu’er, only known for drying tea in the sun and and trading it on horseback. The representative for Chester was presumably animated by reports of “a French Consul having been appointed to it”, as if it were therefore an “imporant emporium of trade”.14

Going to press in 1890, Hallett had proposed “Ssumao” (Simao, 思茅) as a stop on a fantasy railroad the British never did build; in reaction, the French demanded the right to trade there in a Franco-Chinese treaty of 1895, and sent in a representative to watch and wait for the trains that never came. In 1898, the British Foreign Office then commissioned a Report on a Journey from Hong Kong to Ssumao, comprising all of ten pages.15 I presume that this eye-witness account deflated England’s economic expectations for this fledgling outpost of the tea-trade. Doubtless, at that time, what is now Simao had experienced some new prosperity on its own small scale (less than four years into its new status as “open” to cross-border trade) but it neither was nor ever did become an “important emporium of trade”. “Ssumao” is mentioned in a few further economic reports presented to Parliament around 1900, and then disappears from the Hansard; it was no longer a subject of debate.

The proof of just how foolish this railway scheme was could be found in the same tome that proposed it, if only the reader would look beyond the map. The introduction to the White Lotus edition (op. cit., p. x) points out that Hallett estimated trade along the route from Yunnan as varying between 700 and 1,000 laden mules and ponies per annum. Would the tight-fisted accountants of the British Empire have undertaken a railroad to Aberdeen for the sake of such a haul, dissipated over the course of an average year? No, not to spare the labor of the mules, nor to spare the labor of the Scotsmen. Far less could anyone justify the money, munitions, bridges to-be-built and blood to-be-spilled, in forging such a route in hostile territory, alternately consisting of impassable mountain ranges and tropical river-valleys. A more detached observer of 1898, commented:

It is curious what an effectual barrier this great river region has proven to communication between the Chinese and Indian Empires. A more interesting country, geographically, geologically, and ethnologically, does not exist, and fortunately there are few so impossible commercially.16

Even if the doubling of local trade were envisioned, it would have been more cost-effective to simply furnish an additional thousand ponies —though they might have wandered idly around the markets of Simao for quite a long time, waiting for work.§5.

As fierce as the debate appears on the page, with the possibility of a European war looming behind it, some of the most important information is well understood by both sides, and left unsaid.

While Lemire would like us to imagine that the tricolor had been flying over the Mekong from time immemorial, the French presence on the lower Mekong was defined by their military and political victory in western Cambodia no earlier than 1887, overcoming a widespread revolt with Royal leadership, resisting French dominion.17

Their presence on the upper Mekong dates from 1886, when the first vice-consul took up residence in Luang Prabang —or, to be specific, in one rather unprepossessing wooden shack in Luang Prabang.18 In the short term, this modest contribution to local architecture did little to substantiate their clams to Le Laos Annamite. In fact, the second consul to Luang Prabang, M. Massie, had just committed suicide in September of 1892, casting yet more doubt on the tenuous connection between France and northern Laos, or what the significance of either one to the other might be.19 Lemire leaves this suicide unmentioned, perhaps in shame, for it weighed heavily on the imagination of the French colonists; it was certainly reported in the British Parliament’s main source of information on Laos, viz., the French newspapers. Thus, in 1893, Lammington could still boldly assert that, “…there was no shadow of French influence at the present time in any of the old Annamite parts of the country”.1

Lemire’s travelogue, despite itself, gives us a precise notion of just how insubstantial the French “shadow” truly was, from village to village, and outpost to outpost. If, by suicide, the French had just lost the foothold that began with Pavie’s wooden shack in Luang Prabang, what could be said of their presence in the Annamite mountains, from “Tran Ninh” (Xieng Khouang) to “the Tchepone” (Xepon)? Could they even boast of a few wooden shacks there? French presence there consisted of Pavie, the first consul, passing through in 1889. The findings of the earlier exploration by Harmand in 1877 were politically inconvenient: Harmand reported that the area was not under “Annamite” rule (viz., the Vietnamese were not exercising authority over the area from Huê) but rather found that the area was subject to Siamese rule, with various Lao principalities “linked in a tentative way to the ruler of …Ubon, which in turn was a vassal of Bangkok”.20 This is the very antithesis of what Lemire hopes to prove, i.e., that the legitimate rulers of the territory were “Annamite”, and the Siamese were unjust usurpers.21 Instead of quoting the popular (even somewhat famous) accounts of Harmand’s exploration, published in the magazine Le Tour de Monde, then collected into a book in 1880, Lemire instead tries to draw attention to lesser known statements that Harmand made after the fact, in 1883;22 these statements, more useful to Lemire, were allegedly made after Harmand had “already rejected the term ‘savages’”, which is to say, after he had come to regret the very title of his account of the expedition, and a term used throughout the book.23 The weakness of the actual French presence there is contrasted to the supposed strength of their moral purpose in driving the Siamese out. Lemire laments, repeatedly, that the French had not done this sooner, and that their (alleged) “subject peoples” had been waiting for salvation from the French, to both protect them and return them to “Annamite” dominion.

The so-called savages, in an unusually relaxed picture for the era.

To this end, Lemire makes some attempt to catalog and quantify the atrocities of the Siamese in Laos, and even of the Chinese raiders coming south from Yunnan, but not the atrocities of the French themselves. While the British had fresh blood on their hands from the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885 (annexing upper Burma), the French “sack of Huê” brutally repressed a Vietnamese nationalist rebellion in the same year (eventually hunting down the emperor and exiling him to Algeria, until his death). In an account of history that repeatedly depicts the French as victims (French colonists, French missionaries, and French “subjects” alike) the refusal to admit of any victims among the conquered is glaring. The retrenchment of French power in Annam came with all the cruelty the civilized nations are infamous for. The slaughter of subject peoples in the name of teak logging concessions, rubber plantations, and so on, was already an old story for the European powers playing this game, refined over centuries of crusades for commerce across one continent after another; but for the disgraced Royal families of Burma and Huê, this was certainly something new. The threat that Siam posed to “Annamite Laos” in 1893 comes under a different light if seen in the context of 1885; the simple truth is that the Europeans were a threat to everybody —including each-other.

Perhaps the greatest single factor to escape mention is opium. While the word does appear here and there in Lemire’s account, treated in passing as if it were merely one trade good among many, it would be insincere to pretend that it was of the same interest to the French as taxes on the trade in water-buffaloes. There was, in fact, an international race underway, to see who could make their fortune through the opium trade on this sub-continent, assuming there was such a fortune to be made by reproducing the model of that sub-continent (viz., England’s opium exports from India to China):

The United states …although not successful in including a clause to the Treaty of Amity in 1833 stipulating that opium could be traded with Thailand, did prevail in 1856 when Townsend Harris was the chief American negotiator. From then on, Thailand was obliged to allow opium imports in the name of Western free trade. […]
…[A]lmost as soon as the French annexed Laos in 1893, the colonial government promoted the opium trade. Although Laos was by this time an opium producer, a considerable amount was imported into the country through the opium monopoly then active in Vietnam.24

The myth of the riches to be made by the aforementioned railroad to China, or even via the Mekong as a “river road” to China, tend to pass over in silence the specific commodity they were expecting to export. The scant mention of the opium economy in these 19th century sources may be compared to accounts of the wars fought in the present day that constrain themselves to the most vague and fleeting allusions to oil wells and gasoline refineries. What is, in fact, the economic crux of the conflict, and an important aspect of the diplomatic negotiations underway, passes everywhere unmentioned, not only out of politesse, but also because its significance is already understood by all sides, and needs no explanation.

Such silence not only avoids basic ethical questions, but can also serve to cover over basic economic misconceptions. A study of the history of population growth puts China’s total population above 400 million at the outbreak of the First Opium War (1834);25 the Chinese market was neither infinite, nor did it have infinite demand for opium. South-western China was then radically less populous and exponentially less wealthy than the markets the British had reached through the eastern seaboard (and through the Opium Wars). In fact, the region of China in question had just been annihilated by a series of wars: the heart of Yunnan was devastated in a hard-fought revolution from 1856-63, with another siege of Kunming in 1868; yet more massacres and purges ensued further west of the capital in 1872-4.26 Though any one battle may seem small in isolation, the overall context of reprisal killings that accompanied the aforementioned war (spanning west from Kunming to Dali and Tengchun, 1856 to ‘74) was exacerbated by the conflict immediately to the east in Guizhou, the so-called “Miao Rebellion” (1854-73). What we would now call campaigns of ethnic cleansing ensued in both conflicts, the one on the west targeting Muslims, the one on the east targeting the Hmong and other ethnic minorities. Even the southernmost periphery of Yunnan (viz., including what is now Jinghong, on the Mekong) was laid to waste in a long series of internecine wars in the 1840s and 1850s.27 This is not even to mention the apocalyptic Taiping Rebellion (1851-62), involving the deaths of fully 100 million people,28 albeit a long way east of Yunnan or Guizhou, but forming an aspect of the economic outlook of the times. This was an era of momentous, large-scale combat that reshaped the history of the region, with economic devastation as its most obvious effect.

In the aftermath of such wars, the rugged frontier of the Yunnan-Burmese border region did not present markets populated by the 19th century stereotype of the silk-merchant mandarin, who could pay in silver for the luxury of the white man’s opium. The imperialists should have understood this; did they?

Moreover, by climate and by agricultural tradition, Yunnan was quite capable of growing its own opium; the province already supplied its own market demand with some surplus for export (as observed by Pavie, and quoted on p. 55 of the present volume!). The Europeans might have guessed that Yunnan was a source of opium production rather than a destination for the commodity: the opium producers whom the French were delighted to discover in Laos were themselves recent arrivals from Yunnan (e.g., on p. 45 of Lemire’s account, below), a migration largely of refugees fleeing the wars already mentioned.

Leaving aside the obvious moral odium of the industry, there were no grounds then (nor now) to suppose that Europeans could get rich by competing to produce such a drug at a low enough price to appeal to some of the poorest consumers in the world, strewn across a vast and barely-traversable landscape, in the disarray and rubble left in the wake of recent wars. Laos could certainly produce the stuff, but no significant portion of the opium grown in the “golden triangle” was to be consumed in Yunnan. Eventually, it would be exported to the decadent west.


So, in conclusion, we may turn to Lemire’s own closing thoughts: France must move to occupy the Shan States and the upper Mekong’s “right bank” generally with “energetic vigilance”.29 In plain language, this means launching an invasion westward: it means war.

It would not have been war with the English only. Holt S. Hallett’s tome (that helped to propel the mania for the hypothetical railroad, inspiring the “forward policy” of the French toward Shan State in the first place) contains an important, if elliptical, admission on its last page, in appendix:

…[As for] a further extension up to the frontier, no decision to this effect has yet been taken, as the possibility of such an undertaking must depend upon the conditions of the regions through which such a railway would pass. They have in past times been very disturbed, and the efforts to obtain a partial survey of the country, which have been made more than once by the Indian Government, have been frustrated by the uncivilized and turbulent character of the people.30

In this context, we may gloss “uncivilized” as “capable of resisting Europeans on a ‘civilizing mission’ to conquer them”.

Protracted periods of war seem to reduce a culture’s capacity to make anything but war; yet it does not rob them of this. One may either say that it was despite the devastation they had already endured, or rather prepared by it, that the peoples of what became divided into Laos, Shan State, and Southern Yunnan, went on to another century of warfare. The coming cycle of violence, with one wave of imperialists following another, would leave the sequence of struggles outlined above (ca. 1840s-70s) dwarfed in hindsight.

In 1975, Laos would come to be ruled by the veterans (and victors) of combat against the French, the Japanese, and the Americans in turn; as mentioned, this young republic would go on to fight the Thai invasion of 1987-8 —and win. Lao independence, the one possibility unmentioned in the parliamentary debates of the 19th c. European powers, would be won, eventually, through bloodshed and misery beyond description. If durable peace was ever intended in re-drawing the map of Southeast Asia, Lao independence was clearly one of the more important “missing pieces” of the puzzle.

The negotiations of at the close of the 19th century (1893 & 1896) did not create the conditions for peace, nor did they even resolve the fundamental antagonism with Siam. The bare assertion of the Thai nationalists that Laos and Cambodia had always been Thai territory (viz., to justify invasion in 1941, and to request annexation of their neighbors through arbitration in 1947, vide supra, §2) has it basis less in fact than in the “believable sentiment” that the French had swindled everyone, with the even less believable claims of 1893:

Years before the conclusion of this treaty, France had an eye on other parts of Thai territory. The French claimed that the area west of the Mekong belonged to Annam and thus to France because Annam was a French possession.[…] That was the Union of French Indochina — the product of ruthless aggression and treachery against a weak Power — but Thailand which lost nearly half of its territory to the French within the course of forty years lived through all its ordeals. Between 1867 and 1907, the Thai lost 467,500 square kilometres of land to the French [viz., Laos & Cambodia], retaining 513,447 kilometres for themselves.31

If the Thais are to be criticized for unsubstantiated pseudo-historical claims to a far greater “empire” than they had actually controlled before French colonists arrived, we must juxtapose this with the absurdity of the French claim to the same territory. Though Thailand could never prove that the disputed territories were previously “Thai”, the French could even less prove them to be “Annamite”; with the Japanese mediators proving a receptive audience for such arguments after the Franco-Thai war concluded in 1941, the Thai press made the myth of the “lost territories” into an article of the new nationalist faith. This balance of fictions has left behind a lingering sense of the justness of Thai expansionism as a sort of phony “Thai Irredentism”, encompassing also the Shan States and southern Yunnan.

This remains politically potent today. In Sivaram’s ultra-nationalist account of 1941, he insistently refers to the 1890s as recent history: it was only, “a few decades ago”, he writes, “when France was systematically carving out slice after slice of good Thai territory…”.32 Thus, with each war, the old border-dispute seems to be renewed; the Thai defeat of 1893 is made to seem unsettled, open to renegotiation, even if it cannot be undone. This history’s aura of contemporary salience was revived not only in the Thai invasion of Laos in 1987-8 (aforementioned), but also in Thailand’s protracted (military and logistical) cross-border support for Pol Pot’s “Khmer Rouge”.33 As with the present conflict, in 2008, any crisis along across the Cambodian border only serves to remind Thailand of its supposed “lost territories” on the other side; it remains the border that the Thais negotiated with the French, and perhaps they can never accept it as definitive for just that reason.

Nothing could be more misconceived than Lemire’s premise that by offering protection, pacification would come about as a natural consequence; 34 nor would his warning against imposing forced labor on the populace be heeded.34 Lemire established that the Thais were hated and feared, as an historical fact, due to the predations and oppressions that other histories would rather omit (most importantly: slavery); for that alone, it is an important document. However, the notion that the French would not be hated for their own oppressions in turn, once they had driven the Thais out, proved in practice to be just as hollow as it seems upon the page.

The French presumed to represent liberty, but brought with them their own terrible history of slavery. The French presumed to recreate the perceived commercial success of British India; perhaps this mode of emulation was preferable to contemplating their own moral and military failure in major colonies such as Haiti. Already from 1902-7, the French would face organized revolts throughout their Lao possessions, with leaders expressing their goals in terms of the repudiation of both French and Siamese rule.35 If the French had learned anything from the history of Britain’s opium economy in India, or from their own plantation economy in Haiti, they did not demonstrate it in their rule of Indochina. As had already been demonstrated in Cambodia in 1887, and in Vietnam in 1885, the basis of French dominion in Laos, too, would be neither more nor less than force of arms.

What the French seemed incapable of recognizing was that force-of-arms was their great weakness, not their strength: Lemire complains that France had not fulfilled its “promise” in Indochina some 25 years earlier, as if they had prevaricated before committing some reserves of strength already in place in the 1870s, without a flicker of recognition that France itself had ceased to exist in the years 1870 to ‘71. In fact, the ludicrous fantasy of French Indochina could be described as a dream suspended between two German conquests: the Prussian invasion of 1870 and the Nazi invasion of 1940. The response to the Prussian invasion was the Paris Commune on the one hand, and the leadership of Louis Adolph Thiers on the other; strategically and morally, the enterprise of colonialism after 1870 seemed to be predicated upon the denial that “the Second Empire” had fallen, and incomprehenion as to what France’s place in Europe as “the Third Republic”, might be.

Even within the bounds of Lemire’s short account, we can see the same conflicting impulses that played out in the composition of the Third Republic itself: the French wanted to fly the revolutionary tricolor with the restored monarchy at the helm of a Napoleonic empire. What they got instead was Thiers-ism in 1870, and Pétain-ism in 1940; they were morally and militarily exhausted.

Human nature has not changed in a hundred years, nor a thousand; but the nature that surrounded Lemire in his journey has disappeared. Where today are the jungles he described, with a canopy over 50 metres high?36 Nowhere. The paths of mud and rock that Lemire’s convoy of elephants once struggled over, are now Lao Highway Number 9: from the Lao-Vietnamese border (at Lao Bao) running through Xepon, to the border with Thailand in a number of hours. What is truly irreversible and irretrievable is not the movement of borders on the map, but the reduction of the land and its wilderness to nothing more than an economic resource. In this respect, no matter who rules it, the country is lost. [End]


1. The Digital Edition of the British Parliamentary Hansard, available c/o, reproducing the record of Feb. 17, 1893, vol. 8, cc1689-94 (Debates of the House of Lords).

2. p. 60 of the present volume.

3. Digitized Hansard, op. cit. supra note 1, June 12th, 1893, vol. 13, cc787-8 (Debates of the House of Commons).

4. Digitized Hansard, op. cit. supra note 1, August 21st, 1895, cc463-524 (A House of Commons debate, under the heading of “Class II”). On the history of “Mongsing”, a series of major contributions have been made in recent years by Volker Grabowsky; see, e.g., the article cited in note 27, below. The same author provides a survey of the principality’s history (less detailed than his journal articles, starting circa 1870) on a website:

5. Bowie, Katherine, Feb. 15, 1993, Slavery in Nineteenth Century Northern Thailand: Archival Anecdotes and Village Voices”, [permanently available on-line, via:] Kyoto Review for Southeast Asian Studies: This essay quotes an unusually lengthy, detailed account of slavery in Thailand rendered to the British Foreign Office in 1879.

6. Ngaosyvathn, Pheuipanh, 1985, “Thai-Lao Relations: A Lao View”, Asian Survey, Vol. 25, issue 12, Dec. 1985, 1242-1259.

7. Digitized Hansard, op. cit. supra note 1, September 4th, 1893, vol. 16, cc1856-9 (Debates of the House of Lords).

8. Digitized Hansard, op. cit. supra note 1, February 9th, 1892, vol. 1, cc6-38.

9. p. 57 of the present volume.

10. Compare the account of China’s role in the resolution of the Franco-British border dispute in August Pavie’s 4th mission, ch. 5 & 6 (p. 645 et. seq.): Pavie, August, 1999 (1st ed. 1879-95), Pavie Mission Exploration Work, White Lotus Press, Bangkok. A detailed and richly illustrated account, though less politically savvy, has also been reprinted from Le Tour De Monde (1885-7) in English translation as: Neis, Dr. P., 1998, The Sino-Vietnamese Border Demarcation, White Lotus, Bangkok.

11. p. 39 of the present volume.

12. Hallett, Holt S., 2000 (1st ed. 1890), A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States, White Lotus Press, Bangkok.

13. Lamington perhaps exaggerates his own trailblazing slightly, or perhaps intends to refer to one area more specifically than I can infer from the text, when he reports to Parliament, “…till about this day last year, [this remote area] had never been visited by an European.” Digitized Hansard, op. cit. supra note 1, February 9th, 1892, vol. 1, cc6-38.

14. Digitized Hansard, op. cit. supra note 1, February [day omitted?], 1896, vol. 37, cc1079-80 (Debates of the House of Commons).

15. The citation for this report, that I have not seen myself, is: Foreign Office [of Great Britain], August 1898, Report on a Journey from Hong Kong to Ssumao (Diplomatic and Consular Reports, China, miscellaneous series, no. 473), H.M. Stationery Office, London.

16. Smyth, H. Warrington, 1994 (1st ed., 1898), Five Years in Siam, White Lotus Press, Bangkok, vol 1, p 139.

17. Osborne, Milton, 2001, The Mekong, Grove Press, New York, see esp. p. 125-9.

18. For a photograph of the shack in question, cf. p. 635 of Pavie, 1999 (op. cit. note 10, above).

19. Le Boulanger, Paul, 1931, Histoire du Laos Francaise, Librarie Plon, Paris. [part of a unnumbered series: Exposition Coloniale Internationale, sub-series: Indochine Francaise] The obliquely-worded statement on p. 304-6, seems to make every effort to blame the “Siamese agents” for at least “exasperating” him before his demise. M. Massie was also the author a posthumously published lexicon, apparently one of the least known by-products of the Pavie mission: M. Massie, 1894, Mission Pavie Exploration de L’Indo-Chine, Tome II, Fasc. 2: Dictionnaire Laotien, Ministry of Public Education and Fine Arts, Paris.

20. Osborne, 2001, p. 123; op. cit. supra, note 17. [For the original account by Harmand, see note 23, below].

21. e.g., p. 30-32 of the present volume.

22. p. 56 of the present volume.

23. [In English translation:] Harmand, F.J., 1997, Laos and the Hilltribes of Indochina, White Lotus, Bangkok. [The original series of articles:] Harmand, F.J., 1878-9, “Le Laos et les Populations Sauvages de L’Indochine”, in: Le Tour de Monde, vol. 39, no. 1006-1010.

24. Renard in: Development or Domestication? [Renard, 314]

25. He Bochuan, 1991, China on the Edge, China Books, Taipei, p. 6.

26. Goodman, Jim, 2002, The Exploration of Yunnan, Yunnan People’s Publishing House, Kunming, see esp. p. 26-7.

27. Grabowsky, Volker, 1999, “Introduction to the History of Muang Sing (Laos) prior to French Rule: The fate of a Lu Principality”, BEFEO 86, p. 233-291; see esp. p. 241.

28. He Bochuan, 1991, p. 7, op. cit. supra, note 25.

29. p. 63 of the present volume, the last page of text.

30. Hallett, 2000, p. 473, op. cit. supra, note 12.

31. Sivaram, M., 1941, Mekong Clash and Far East Crisis, Thai Commercial Press, Bangkok; see esp. p. 15 & 18.

32. Sivaram, 1941, p. 115, op. cit. supra, note 31.

33. Zhu Zhengming, 1990, “The Thai Stand, Attitude, and Policy Towards the Kampuchean Issue”, in Proceedings of the 4th International Conference of Thai Studies, Vol. II, p. 426-442. I cite this source, rather than other histories of Thailand’s role in the conflict, as it is written from the unguarded perspective of a Chinese author, urging Thailand to continue and renew its support for Pol Pot’s side (referred to by the code-name CGDK after a conference held by its sponsors on June 21st, 1982). These issues are also briefly outlined in the new introduction to: Vickery, Michael, 1999, Cambodia 1975-1982, Silkworm Books (reprinting the 1984 edition “without changes”, apart from the addition of the new introduction indicated).

34. p. 52 of the present volume.

35. Keyes, Charles F., Feb. 1977, “Millennialism, Theravada Buddhism, and Thai Society”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 36, Issue 2, see esp. p. 297-99.

36. p. 9 of the present volume.

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